The Short Version: Cormoran Strike, an Afghan vet turned private detective, has hit a rough patch. Business is nonexistent, he’s in debt up to his eyeballs, and he and his girlfriend have just irrevocably split up – which also means he’s homeless. But when the brother of a famous recent suicide walks in, claiming his model sister was killed and not suicidal, his luck begins to rebound. Alongside Robin Ellacott, his new temp secretary, he embarks on a case that just might make his career…
The Review: “I am become a name.” It’s Tennyson, that line – his Ulysses poem. It’s the last line of the novel, Strike reflecting on his new situation in life – but it’s also quite a trick, knowing what we know now about this mysterious “Robert Galbraith”. After all, isn’t it exactly how Jo Rowling must’ve felt as the Harry Potter series picked up steam? “I am become a name.” It’s an audacious move – and one that shows, quite firmly, that Ms. Rowling is an exceptional author. You know, just in case you were still laboring under the impression that that wasn’t the case – there are plenty of people out there who hated The Casual Vacancy for what it wasn’t, rather than enjoying it for what it was.
But let’s not deal with the hubbub surrounding the revelations of an authorial nature and instead focus on the book itself (which is, I have to imagine, rather how Rowling would’ve liked it to be for at least a little while longer – perhaps at least through book two?). And in that respect, it is a quite assured and rather impressive ‘debut’ for a series. By the end, both Cormoran Strike and his fetching assistant Robin are vividly rendered in the reader’s mind – as are, I have to add, most of the supporting characters. It is a true gift to be able to create characters so fully in such a relatively short amount of time – but from even the earliest pages, we buy the reality of these people. Beginning the novel not with Cormoran but rather with Robin, we take a rather traditional route towards setting the scene: our first introduction to our hero comes not through his own head but through the experience of someone interacting with him. And it’s an awkward interaction to say the least – but it could not be a better introduction. We learn so many things so very quickly about Cormoran from that first interaction and, in doing so, are gifted with a rather full sketch of the man before we have even realized it.
The novel then makes short work of jumping between the points of view of Robin and Cormoran, although it gives more weight to the detective by the end. It not only illuminates our characters but also provides humor: seeing how the two deal with little misinterpretations of intention sets up an almost screwball-esque banter between them. Rowling steers clear of the romance trap – even giving Robin the disapproving fiancé, good for a mention here or there – but there’s also enough banter and play that it becomes romance-without-romance, if that makes sense. It does to me, anyway. Plus, there’s plenty of other romance happening, including Cormoran getting lucky in a downright cheer-inducing way.
The supporting characters, even ones who only appear for a single scene, are all also quite vividly drawn – Rowling has a way with description, which we all know, but imagine coming into this book not knowing it was her: the way “Galbraith” creates characters from a few well-deployed descriptors and a mannerism or two would’ve been an absolute knockout. Guy Somé, Lula’s fashion designer friend, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Duffield spring to mind first and foremost – they might, outwardly described, seem like caricatures of the gay black fashion designer and the tortured, heroin-using Pete Doherty-type but they are quickly shown to be far more nuanced than that. In fact, that might be the most fun of the entire book: seeing how vivid and starkly drawn these characters start out as and then watching Rowling shade in the details.
The plot itself is, perhaps, the weakest part of the book – not to say that it’s weak, but it does feel a little more overwrought at times than the rest of the novel’s features. The “it wasn’t a suicide” angle is always a good place to start and there are plenty of potential suspects here – and it all goes relatively according to ‘plan’, let’s say, right up to the somewhat-surprising, somewhat-“oh-I-knew-it!” reveal. If the engines take a little time to turn over at the start, you could conceivably forgive them as they really take off in the last 150 or so pages. Still, I would’ve liked a little more ingenuity – and I say that wholly because of knowing who the author really is. Maybe next time.
Oh also – somebody (Book Riot?) did a post recently examining why this book hadn’t done stronger prior to the Rowling announcement, considering that the blurbs and press it was getting were almost uniformly excellent, and they made some strong points. The strongest is that both the title and the cover do absolutely no favors to the novel or the story contained therein. One character calls Lula “Cuckoo” and while the novel absolutely contains some very strong musings on what it means to be hounded by the press (and the desire for anonymity [again, Ms. Rowling, well-effing-played]), the cover with a pretty model facing down flashbulbs doesn’t really give you the sense that this is a mystery of any kind. So, consider that, marketing people at publishers: sell the book you have as opposed to some skewed version of what you think it is.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Despite the fact that this was written by a well-established author, there are occasional flashes of this being a first-time-out. After all, this is Rowling’s first proper mystery (it could be said that Azkaban was the Potter “mystery” novel, I’d take that argument – but for all intents and purposes…) and so, yeah, you sense that there are a few moments of sticking squarely to convention. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t shake off the weight of the new expectations heaped onto this book post-reveal – and they do color how you’ll read said book. But it’s worth trying to be cool about it nonetheless and just read this as the cover intends: as the strongly lauded first novel in a new series by a writer who’s never done this particular thing before. Robert Galbraith, I can’t wait to see what comes next – this is one hell of a start.